LOS ANGELES — A newly rediscovered short, seven-page play found in a 1926 religious school journal now has a bit part in a Jewish theater company’s efforts to stay afloat during the coronavirus pandemic.
The three-act drama, entitled “The Little Hasmoneans,” was originally written in Hebrew in 1916 by K. L. Silman, who had recently immigrated to Israel from his native Lithuania.
The play recounts how the Maccabean family violently rebelled against the Greeks and their proclivity for idol worship, and was published in full by Congregation Rodeph Shalom in Philadelphia, among clergy letters and pupils’ fervent opeds in the school’s I-Tell-You bulletin.
It is noteworthy that the Reform Philadelphia congregation, which was founded in 1795, chose a work with prominent nationalist themes for its holiday bulletin: In 1926, the congregation, which had recently lost two of its longtime leaders, had embarked on a new era with Rabbi Louis Wolsey, an avowed anti-Zionist.
The play has now been revived — just in time for Hanukkah — by the Los Angeles-based experimental Jewish theater company Theatre Dybbuk, which recently performed the play as part of its new podcast, Dybbukast. During the ongoing coronavirus crisis, Dybbukast has become the primary artistic focus for the group, alongside an increased educational initiative.
The company, named after an evil wandering spirit that enters and possesses a living person’s body until exorcised (at least, according to Jewish folklore), performs a radio cast of the play as a separate bonus episode.
Appropriately, when adapting to life under the shadow of COVID, the unorthodox troupe has chosen to zig where others have zagged.
“A lot of other live theater companies are trying to replicate or stay close to the live theater experience,” says 42-year-old Aaron Henne, who founded Theatre Dybbuk in 2011. “We are going another way; we wanted to do something that speaks to our mission but takes a completely different form.”
Each Dybbukast episode consists of performed readings of historic Jewish texts, combined with a scholarly discussion about the historical circumstances and why the text is relevant to today.
Its previous live productions, as well as the Dybbukast podcast, exemplify Henne’s unique approach to theater: “Jewish history is an excellent entry point from which we can ask complex questions of our world,” he says.
The ongoing pandemic has likewise raised increasingly complex questions in the past year, especially for those attempting to make a living in the arts. Performing artists, actors, and smaller entertainment venues have been hard hit by the forced closures. In California, more than 230,000 people working in the arts, entertainment, and recreation industry filed for unemployment benefits, according to the state’s Employment Development Department.
In an American Theatre survey of theater companies from across the United States, about half indicated that they would likely have to close for good if things don’t change dramatically by the summer of 2021.
To stay afloat, many troupes took to the internet, providing access to pre-recorded productions or performances viewers can download on-demand. Theatre Dybbuk in Los Angeles tried table reads with audience Q & As at the beginning of the pandemic, but soon pivoted to audio-only.
The first Dybbukast episodes features the 1926 Philadelphia religious school journal. Miriam Heller Stern, associate professor and director of the School of Education at Hebrew Union College, provides analysis and answers Henne’s questions while the pair touch on Jewish-American identity, assimilation, and the inter-war period.
The second episode examines the book of Enoch, a historical Jewish text that is part of the canon in Ethiopian communities. Mainly written during the Hellenistic period, the apocalyptic text serves as an entry point to discuss things such as the value of retelling mythological narratives with Dr. Greg Salyer, president of the Philosophical Research Society.
On the website, visitors can click on and download extensive educational materials that supplement the podcast and dive deeper into some of the questions that could not be fully explored in 30 to 45 minutes.
Where social consciousness and education can meet
Theatre Dybbuk has previous experience with Hellenistic Judaism and texts set in the period of the Hanukkah story. In 2016 it staged “Exagoge,” based on the first recorded Jewish play from the 2nd century BCE written by Ezekiel the Tragedian, which was preserved in fragments by much later historians, such as Eusebius.
Henne discovered a 269-line compilation of the Greek poet Ezekiel’s drama, which tells the Exodus story in the style of the time — Greek tragedy. After identifying the Jewish entry point, Theatre Dybbuk’s team connected the play with immigration narratives throughout American history.
Because Jews have been marginalized many times throughout history, the artistic director feels comfortable approaching topics such as “othering,” dominance, subjugation, and power dynamics within society through a Jewish lens.
In addition to performing live theater based on at times obscure and relatively inaccessible Jewish texts, Henne and his team also run workshops for educators and Jewish professionals.
The educational arm has seen an increase of 30 to 50 percent during the pandemic. Henne notes that teachers are faced with a new set of realities and must meet the challenge of getting students involved and interacting with one another during virtual classes.
The tools and techniques he suggests haven’t changed, says Henne, but had to be adapted to meet the needs of teachers operating in the new Zoom world.
“As educators and theater people, we’re used to improvising and willing to try things,” he says.
Shifting these workshops online allows Theatre Dybbuk to work with more groups outside of California.
Katherine Schwartz, director of Lifelong Learning at Congregation Har HaShem in Boulder, Colorado, met Henne at a conference about five years ago.
“I’ve wanted to get Aaron out here for a long time, but it was just too expensive once you factor in flights and all that,” she says.
In August, Schwartz took full advantage of the “new normal” and invited Henne to remotely facilitate a senior staff workshop. The goal was to help teachers foster a sense of safety and community for students online.
“The techniques he shows you work — with slight adaptations — for every age group,” says the seasoned educator, who has been with Congregation Har HaShem for 24 years.
Now, as each episode of the Dybbykast comes with academic resources, exercises, and materials, Henne feels even more confident in the dual identities of education and performance that Theatre Dybbuk embodies.
“Suddenly we have something that is our theatrical work, and all these educational pieces that are intertwined and speak to one another,” Henne says.
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